In an earlier post I published Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D.’s article focusing on why empathy can be a two edged sword, which stirred a lot of discussion. Jeff is a psychiatrist, researcher in neuroplasticity at the UCLA School of Medicine and internationally recognized expert in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He is also author of the popular books Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior and The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.
Today it is my pleasure to bring to you a wonderful interview with Jeff where he gives us some more insight into neuroplasticity and why the vast amount of research in neuroscience has been a “gargantuan waste of money.”
Elisha: Donald Hebb made the statement, neurons that fire together, wire together. A lot of people are now using this phrase to refer to neuroplasticity. Can you give us some more insight into this concept?
Jeff: That’s a great question Elisha! I’ve been using that principle (aka Hebb’s Law) in connection with the term “self-directed neuroplasticity” and I’ve co-authored an article in Progress in Brain Research on exactly that. This jumps right into the quantum aspect of the work that I’ve done. To give the short answer, there is a physical phenomenon in quantum mechanics, called Quantum Zeno Effect that I’ve written a great deal about. This is work I’ve done over many years in collaboration with physicist Henry Stapp at UC Berkeley-Lawrence Berkeley labs. What the Quantum Zeno Effect does is that it allows, in a neuroscience context, for focused attention to stabilize brain circuitry
So the Quantum Zeno Effect stabilizes or holds in place the neural circuitry that is involved in whatever someone is focusing on. So if you focus on something, the neural circuitry involved in what you’re focusing on will be stabilized by this physics effect called Quantum Zeno Effect. This is very tied in to how Hebb’s Law causes neuroplastic change. For humans, it’s specifically how self-directed neuroplasticity can allow a human being to make Hebb’s Law work for them in a creative fashion because it is very true that Hebb’s law can be summarized as saying neurons that fire together wire together. However, there’s never been any functional way in vivo in humans to answer the question, how do you get neurons to fire together?
If they fire together, they wire together, but how do you get them to fire together? The Quantum Zeno Effect is the answer to that. So, focused attention, via the Quantum Zeno Effect will stabilize neural circuits, get them to fire together, and when they fire together they will wire together by Hebb’s Law. That is the physiological basis of self-directed neuroplasticity.
Elisha: The amount of books that have been and continue to come out in this renaissance in neuroscience is staggering; any predictions for the net effect of all of this writing and research?
Jeff: I’m going to give a somewhat controversial answer to that since even as we speak in our current era, the vast majority of neuroscience writing and research, perhaps over 99% of it, is written from such a doctrinaire ideologically materialist position that it doesn’t have very much practical application to human function, and especially to how humans can change their own brain function. It’s exactly because the quantum approach that I advocate has not been accepted in research circles, who rely on the National Institute of Health (NIH) for primary funding, that the vast majority of this output of neuroscience publication is written from a radically materialist point of view that doesn’t allow for consciousness or attention to do anything in the brain. So the materialist position does not allow for conscious attention to have a function in the brain. Attention at its best is an epiphenomenon in materialist ideology.
Because of that, this vast output of neuroscience research over the last many years is largely a waste of money.
Why? Because it doesn’t really have any real world human application. Neuroscience is increasingly looking like a passing fad – at least in its current version. Until it changes to a form in which conscious attention has physiologic effects or has a dynamic causal role in how the brain functions, all this research is basically not applicable to anything that’s particularly useful, and so the whole thing has been a gargantuan waste of money. What’s worse, in its current version it has massively increased the use of drugs in our culture, and now is even leading to the use of electrodes being placed inside people’s brains to treat mental health problems! This goes under the Orwellian name “deep brain stimulation” and it is, in my view, a very dangerous development. The terrible past abuses of psychosurgery seem to have largely gone down the memory hole of the current psychiatric establishment.
Elisha: When you talk about conscious attention, is one synonym of that mindful attention?
Jeff: No, it’s absolutely not a synonym, but mindful attention is one small, but massively important, sub-category of the general term conscious attention.
I would say that mindful attention is one of the highest functioning parts of what is included under the much larger category of conscious attention. You can have neutral attention and you can also have negative non-mindful attention. A classic example of this being pornography. Pornography has a huge capacity to holds people’s attention in place, but it is certainly not mindful. But it has the opportunity to wire the brain, by Quantum Zeno Effect, in very negative ways. On the other hand, mindful attention and prayer or meditation, all traditional forms of rigorously practiced meditation would have an adaptive role in brain function. But anything that causes focused or stable attention, whether the subject matter is adaptive or maladaptive or whether it is conducive or not to well-being is going to wire the brain. Focused attention wires the brain, for good and for bad.
Mindful attention, prayer, meditation are the good examples, but there are very many bad examples.
Elisha: Another way of saying that would be as negative attention states of flow. In other words, you could have a sense of flow while looking at pornography or mindlessly shooting guns.
Jeff: Exactly, that’s why I’ve never been a big advocate of flow, unless you couple flow with a worthwhile goal. If you go out and market it the way it’s been marketed as a good in itself, you could do a lot of harm and a lot of harm has been done with that concept.
Thank you so much Jeff!
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Last reviewed: 16 Jul 2010